Gotham Gazette

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Outlook in 2002; Unfinished Business From the Giuliani Era

Parks commissioner Henry Stern will not be asked to stay on in the Bloomberg administration, it was recently reported in several New York newspapers. The eccentric parks chief, who calls everyone in his department by a "park" name and often brings his golden retriever, Boomer, along with him on official business, has led the department for almost 15 years under two mayors. There have been a number of controversies during his tenure, including a racial discrimination lawsuit by black and Hispanic employees and inquiries into the setting and spending of fees charged for private organizations to use the parks. The commissioner also has been criticized for acquiescing to Mayor Rudy Giuliani's yearly pruning of the parks operating budget, leaving the department with less than half the staff it had in the mid-1980s. But Stern also expanded park acreage and initiated many capital projects. He thought up the Greenstreets program, which planted 800 traffic triangles and street medians. Although parks in less affluent areas were largely bypassed, his creative funding and staffing strategies have helped to make many of the city's parks more beautiful and well-used than they have been in decades. At a recent parks event, Stern said that he will continue to work on behalf of parks, and hinted that he will be freer to speak his mind.

The next parks commissioner will inherit a department with a greatly reduced budget and a shortage of staff, especially skilled workers like gardeners and plumbers. During the election, a broad-based coalition of grassroots, civic, and business groups advocated for increasing parks funding to one percent of the budget (from its current .04 percent) and setting maintenance standards that would be applied equally to parks in all parts of the city. Mayor-elect Mike Bloomberg and many newly elected city council members supported the goals of the campaign. But now economists are comparing the city's budget problems to the fiscal crisis of the 1970s. To make up for a $1 billion shortfall in this year's budget, Mayor Guiliani has proposed across-the-board budget reductions, including $4.6 million from parks. Next year's deficit is predicted to be $3.6 billion. "If everyone takes a cut, it's hard to argue that [parks] shouldn't take a cut," says Mike Klein, deputy director of the Parks Council. "But we want to remind people that the parks took a cut even when others did not."

In spite of the grim budget outlook, Klein is optimistic about Bloomberg's approach to parks because of the mayor-elect's experience as a board member of the Central Parks Conservancy. "We look for him to have very high standards for the parks system," Klein said. "We think Bloomberg has a terrific respect for how gorgeous and terrific public space can be, and look forward to working with him on expanding his standard of excellence throughout the city."


Community gardens
For years, tenacious community gardeners have been skirmishing with an equally tenacious Mayor Giuliani over the city's plan to sell to developers hundreds of city-owned vacant lots that were cleaned and greened by neighborhood groups. In his campaign literature, Mayor-elect Bloomberg said the city should work with community and civic groups to evaluate all community gardens; he also called for the establishment of a trust for parcels appropriate for garden use. Community garden advocates say they are waiting to see how these general ideas will translate into official policy. As of now, an injunction granted in a lawsuit by New York State Attorney General Elliot Spitzer is preventing the city from going through with any sales of community garden lots. The Bloomberg administration will have to decide whether to continue fighting the lawsuit or to negotiate with the attorney general.

Ball fields or woods?
A conflict in Staten Island over the fate of a natural area will also be carried over into the new administration. A local environmental group, Protectors of Pine Oak Woods, is suing to stop the city from building soccer and baseball fields and basketball and tennis courts in eastern Bloomingdale Park, a forested city park originally set aside for its natural values and for flood control. New York State Attorney General Elliot Spitzer and New York City Audubon have filed amicus briefs in support of the lawsuit. For now, construction is on hold while the lawsuits make their way through the system. The Staten Island political establishment is eager to build the fields, responding to pressure from sports groups and parents for playing space in the rapidly developing southern part of the island. The conservation groups want the fields placed at other, less environmentally sensitive sites. They also say that that it doesn't make sense to put ball fields on wet, hilly land - the fields would be costly to build and maintain, and could end up flooded and useless like fields built on damp ground elsewhere in the city. If they are right, the Bloomberg administration could end up with an expensive boondoggle. A study commissioned by the parks department found that constructing fields in Bloomingdale Park would cost four times as much as building the same fields at three alternative sites. The parks department originally opposed the plan, but was silenced by Mayor Giuliani.

Ferry Point Park
A plan for a new golf course on city parkland that was pushed through by the Giuliani administration may come back to haunt Mayor-elect Bloomberg. Environmental concerns continue to surface at the Bronx site, the 220-acre eastern section of Ferry Point Park. The park was formerly a municipal garbage dump located over wetlands along the East River. The city granted Ferry Point Partners, a private developer, a 35-year concession to construct and run the 18-hole professional-level golf course.

The Ferry Point landfill operated and closed before strict regulations governing the disposal of garbage went into effect, at a time when hazardous waste frequently found its way into municipal dumps. An environmental assessment conducted by a consultant to the developer found high levels of toxic chemicals, including PCBs, arsenic, and lead, in soil borings at the site. It also detected methane gas, which is produced by decomposing garbage and is explosive at high concentrations. But the parks department determined that the findings did not warrant a more thorough environmental impact statem ent. The state Department of Environmental Conservation, which is monitoring the project, gave its approval.

Even as trucks haul in rubble to cover the landfill and bulldozers reshape the terrain, two environmental groups and residents of a nearby housing project are suing to force the city and state to conduct a more comprehensive environmental review. To begin with, they say, the assessment never looked into the history of the landfill, and what was dumped there. They also suspect that toxic contamination is more extensive than the developer's assessment concluded because several potential routes for seepage of chemicals from the site were not investigated. Rainwater percolating through layers of garbage typically leaches contaminants into the groundwater, yet at Ferry Point there are no monitoring wells to detect what chemicals might be going into the groundwater or the East River. Also not looked into was the possibility that water could be entering the old dump from wetlands or springs underneath. Although test wells are checking methane levels, they are not measuring volatile organic compounds and other carcinogenic substances that tend to migrate along with the methane. Methane readings, however, have been dangerously high in several places. To deal with this unforeseen problem, Ferry Point Partners and the Department of Environmental Conservation are constructing blocks-long, gravel-filled venting trenches near the edges of the park. One trench is in a public park across from the housing project.

Most of the local politicians and the community board support the plan, which they see as a win-win proposition. The developer is underwriting the construction (throwing into the bargain a new community park and a waterfront promenade), and will pay the city an annual fee or a percentage of the golf course revenues if that is higher. But because the city indemnified the developer against "all losses, damages, costs, expenses or liabilities" stemming from preexisting environmental contamination, the city could be stuck with a hefty bill from environmental cleanups or lawsuits.

Anne Schwartz is a freelance writer specializing in environmental issues. Previously, she was the editor of the Audubon Activist, a news journal for environmental action published by the National Audubon Society, and an editor at The New York Botanical Garden.


Open Spaces; A Million Daffodil Memorial

The state just released a draft revision of its Open Space Conservation Plan. The plan, which is updated every three years, lists sites that are priorities for the state to acquire and protect. In the past, the state's open space program has been criticized for neglecting low-income minority areas, particularly in New York City.

The draft plan shows some improvement in addressing the need for parks in the inner city, according to New York City open space advocates. But at the same time, opportunities for acquiring open space - in the city as well as upstate - are in jeopardy because the governor and legislature failed to agree on appropriating funds for land acquisition in this year's budget.

The state's open space program has two major sources of funding: the Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act passed in 1996, and the Environmental Protection Fund, a dedicated trust whose revenues come mostly from the state real estate transfer tax. For open space as well as other environmental programs, New York City has not received funding proportional to its population or tax contributions. Although New York City has 40 percent of the state's population and city transactions account for 44 percent of statewide revenue from the real estate transfer tax, it received just 23 percent of Bond Act/Environmental Protection funds between 1996 and 2000, according to a report by the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance.

Communities of color, which tend to have the lowest amount of parkland per capita as well as the largest number of environmental burdens, have benefited the least. The lion's share of state land acquisition funds spent in New York City went to Staten Island, which has the most open space in the city. Additional money has been committed to the Hudson River and Brooklyn Bridge parks, which border more affluent areas.

The revised plan has taken a few small steps toward rectifying this inequity. It clarifies the definition of what constitutes an "under-served neighborhood," a designation that was supposed to be among the criteria used for selecting sites on the priority list. Several new inner-city projects were added to the list, but many others were not. The plan also recommends setting up a process for evaluating and protecting community gardens as open space and for transferring potential parkland between government agencies. A public workshop and hearing on the plan will be held in Long Island City on November 15. Comments may also be sent by mail or through the Department of Environmental Conservation web site through November 30.

As for funding, open space money from the Bond Act is nearly spent. In late October, Governor Pataki and the legislature deadlocked on how to spend the $150 million in the Environmental Protection Fund, and as a result, no money was appropriated for its various programs, including land acquisition. And now there is talk that the governor intends to raid the fund, though it would go about as far towards closing the state's expected several multi-billion-dollar shortfall as a child's piggy bank would in paying the rent. A state budget department spokesman said he did not have any information on this possibility.

Flowering memorial

Volunteers are planting more than a million daffodil bulbs in public spaces throughout the city in the memory of those lost in the World Trade Center attack and as a symbol of the city's renewal. When spring comes, year after year, a host of golden daffodils will bloom in the city's parks, community gardens, along its highways, and in front of firehouses, police stations, schools, and libraries. The Parks department and a number of citywide and local parks groups have organized more than 7,000 people to plant bulbs at 300 sites. Several companies as well as the City of Rotterdam and the Port Authority have donated bulbs, tools, and supplies. Planting will continue through November 18. For more information, see the web site of Partnership for Parks or call (212) 360-1357.

Anne Schwartz is a freelance writer specializing in environmental issues. Previously, she was the editor of the Audubon Activist, a news journal for environmental action published by the National Audubon Society, and an editor at The New York Botanical Garden.

Campaign Promises For Parks In Light Of 9/11

Voters were planning to go to the polls on September 11 to choose among scores of candidates who had pledged to increase funding for parks. Now the political and financial landscape of the city has been drastically altered. The city is projecting a $1 billion shortfall for this fiscal year, and a $4 billion gap for the next. Even as New Yorkers turn to the parks for community, comfort, and to commemorate the dead, will the promises for parks be another casualty of the terrorist attacks?

Parks supporters saw an opportunity in the 2001 election because of the large turnover of elected officials. After years of frustration with the low level of public funding for city parks - even when the budgets of other city departments were restored during the boom years of the 1990s - they organized to educate the new candidates and win political support for parks. Their coalition, Parks 2001, included block associations, athletic and law enforcement groups, community gardeners, and park advocates as well as prominent civic and business leaders. By the end of the primary season, five of the candidates for mayor and most of the other candidates had pledged to work to commit one percent of the city's budget (more than double the current amount of $160 million) to operating and maintaining the parks. They also promised to distribute resources equitably to all parks, to establish citywide minimum maintenance standards, and to give exclusively to the parks budget the $60 million in fees the city receives from park concessions, which now go into the city's general fund.

After the attacks, however, when the campaign came back into focus, questions were raised about how the candidates would be able to keep their promises on parks. Before the runoff, a New York Times editorial called Fernando Ferrer "borderline irresponsible" for insisting that he still planned to increase the parks budget. Mark Green seized on that phrase as ammunition, using it in the campaign's first negative ad. Neither Green, the Democratic nominee, nor Republican Mike Bloomberg have commented specifically on whether they will uphold their promises to increase funding for parks, although Green has said that many of his previous plans would have to be put off.

Mike Klein, co-campaign manager of Parks 2001, says he remains hopeful that the candidates will be able to honor their commitments to parks. "If they mean what they say about rebuilding, rebirth, revitalizing, you cannot do that without the parks system," he says. "I think New Yorkers will be more aware of just how much they depend on these parks and want them to be equal across the board."

According to Klein, the coalition plans to work with the new mayor, and keep a close watch on the budget process. "This constituency will be much better prepared to have a unified voice on a citywide level, and more clout on a local level. When bad ideas come up in the future, there will be more people organized to speak up."

Bridge Park another victim?

Supporters of the Brooklyn Bridge Park are concerned that plans for the park will be put on hold because of the city's projected budget shortfall, as well as changes in funding priorities from the state. The city had recently promised to spend $10 million to tear down a city-owned warehouse on a key section of the park. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the piers on which much of the park would be built, was to provide more than half of the projected $150 million cost of building the park. Joanne Witty, president of the Brooklyn Bridge Development Corporation, said, "We really don't have much of a reading as to where things stand, other than the fact that we know both the mayor and governor were strongly committed to the park before Sept. 11." A spokeswoman for Governor Pataki, Suzanne Morris, said, "It's something the governor continues to support. But obviously, in the light of what's happened we're taking a look at everything, re-evaluating the entire budget."

What about Governors Island?

Representatives Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler and the Governors Island Group are calling on Congress to help the recovery efforts in New York City by stopping the sale of Governors Island. Legislation passed in 1997 required the General Services Administration to sell the island, a former Coast Guard base, at fair market value. Before September 11, a state and city plan for public use of the island had stalled, and the federal agency had been preparing to auction the island in the coming fiscal year.

Joined by 15 members of New York's congressional delegation, Maloney and Nadler sent a letter to the chairmen and ranking members of key House committees. The letter notes that the Federal Emergency Management Association, the Coast Guard, and the National Guard have been in discussion with the General Services Administration about using Governors Island to aid the recovery efforts.

Governors Island has also been suggested for temporary commercial and residential use for people displaced from the World Trade Center area. The island has 500,000 square feet of office and commercial space both within and outside its historic district. There are also 1200 residential units, 640 of which are outside the historic district and would be most feasible to use for housing. The island has been well maintained by the General Services Administration since the Coast Guard closed the base in 1996.

In their letter, Maloney and Nadler asked that legislation to repeal the sale include two additional provisions: the ratification of President Clinton's designation of the island's historic forts and surrounding land as a national monument; and a requirement that the city and state fully participate in long-term planning for the island.

Anne Schwartz is a freelance writer specializing in environmental issues. Previously, she was the editor of the Audubon Activist, a news journal for environmental action published by the National Audubon Society, and an editor at The New York Botanical Garden.

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